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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hurley: Jacoby Ellsbury Proves Defensive Statistics Are Essentially Meaningless

The Hurley bird catches the term…

There is no better example than the case of Jacoby Ellsbury. The man has the speed, quickness and instincts to steal 70 bases in a season in the majors, yet defensive numbers say he’s a terrible outfielder. And that’s supposed to make sense?

Despite the statistics, Ellsbury was named Defensive Player of the Year on MLB.com. Granted, the honor was voted on by fans, but it proves a point: The kid can play defense.

Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy. Terry Francona probably sleeps a little easier knowing he’s got such solid defense in center, and Red Sox pitchers likely don’t mind knowing that no bloop will fall in shallow center and no blasts will hit the dirt in the triangle.

Yet according to FanGraphs, Ellsbury’s ultimate zone rating was -18.6 in 2009—good for dead last among center fielders. Only Toronto’s Vernon Wells had nearly as low a rating (-18.2), and only two other players (Colorado’s Dexter Fowler and the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukudome) were in the negative double-digits.

But for anyone who wants to live and die by the defensive statistics, then what is there to say about Ellsbury’s 2008 statistics? In 2008, Ellsbury’s UZR was a cool 16.5. Yes, on the other side of zero. So if the stats are to be believed, Ellsbury spent the 2008 offseason eating Cheetos and working on deadening his reaction skills. His jump was just too good—nearly dangerous—for his own good, so he must have wanted to get much, much worse. You know, for safety’s sake.

The reality is that only so much can be determined through numbers and stats, while other things can be surmised through a pair of eyeballs. Ellsbury’s defense leads the list.

Repoz Posted: December 19, 2009 at 01:22 PM | 48 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: projections, red sox, sabermetrics

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. Marcel Posted: December 19, 2009 at 01:45 PM (#3417497)
There is no better example than the case of Jacoby Ellsbury. The man has the speed, quickness and instincts to steal 70 bases in a season in the majors, yet defensive numbers say he’s a terrible outfielder. And that’s supposed to make sense?

Did someone do a study that showed a positive correlation between Stolen Bases and defensive proficiency that I missed?

He plays too deep to reach shallow balls in his zone and he gets bad reads on balls hit directly at him. It really isn't that difficult to understand.
   2. Tricky Dick Posted: December 19, 2009 at 02:05 PM (#3417499)
In an interview linked here a few months ago, Theo Epstein pointed out that defensive metrics are comparing Ellsbury to the average center fielder; and given that so many good defensive players play center field, Ellsbury can be below average and still appear to be a good fielder in center field. The large difference in positive and negative numbers for 08 and 09 makes me think that Ellsbury's true defensive ability might be somewhere in between 08 and 09 UZR results. Dewan's +/- shows Ellsbury at +3 in 08 and -9 in 09. Given that 2 years is a better sample size for defense, that makes me think that Ellsbury is only a few runs below average.
   3. Marcel Posted: December 19, 2009 at 02:13 PM (#3417500)
I think the only people that really take that -18 at face value are the ones that don't realize the sample size issues that defensive stats have.
   4. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: December 19, 2009 at 02:38 PM (#3417506)
Scott Podsednik and Alex Sanchez had all kinds of speed and couldn't centerfield unless it was 10 by 10.
   5. Tom Nawrocki Posted: December 19, 2009 at 02:44 PM (#3417511)
I'm no defender of the defensive metrics, but Lonnie Smith stole as many as 68 bases in a season.
   6. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: December 19, 2009 at 02:48 PM (#3417512)
Lou Brock and Vince Coleman were terrible outfielders as well.
   7. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq. Posted: December 19, 2009 at 03:01 PM (#3417516)
I'm no defender of the defensive metrics, but Lonnie Smith stole as many as 68 bases in a season.
I never realized that he was such a good defensive player. You learn something new every day.
   8. Rally Posted: December 19, 2009 at 03:05 PM (#3417517)
No bloop hits fall into shallow center? Do you REALLY want to go there. I seem to recall such a hit off the bat of a certain V. Guerrero. The headline could just as easily be "advanced metrics prove fans no good at judging defense"
   9. Biff, highly-regarded young guy Posted: December 19, 2009 at 03:26 PM (#3417521)
So if the stats are to be believed, Ellsbury spent the 2008 offseason eating Cheetos and working on deadening his reaction skills.

Or, he just happened to have a good defensive year in 2008 and a bad defensive year in 2009.
   10. Der-K: downgraded to lurker Posted: December 19, 2009 at 03:28 PM (#3417523)
Of course, Lonnie was an underrated (which is not to say good) defender ... Bill James covered this nicely, I think.
   11. dazzle Posted: December 19, 2009 at 03:45 PM (#3417528)
magnificent diving catches.

Don't be mislead by Baseball tonight highlights. OF's have gotten very good at slowing down to make dives and diving after the catch. Or diving when it is not required.
   12. Downtown Bookie Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:13 PM (#3417547)
Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy. Terry Francona probably sleeps a little easier knowing he’s got such solid defense in center, and Red Sox pitchers likely don’t mind knowing that no bloop will fall in shallow center and no blasts will hit the dirt in the triangle.


Which is why the Red Sox would have no need to sign a 36 year old like Mike Cameron and consider playing him in centerfield.

I mean, that was the author's point, right?

DB
   13. Greg K Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:14 PM (#3417552)
Don't be mislead by Baseball tonight highlights. OF's have gotten very good at slowing down to make dives and diving after the catch. Or diving when it is not required.

I'm certainly no defender of Ellsbury, but do people actually believe this?
I used to hear it a lot about Jim Edmonds. Usually from people who had some other pre-existing reason to dislike him.
   14. Lassus Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:17 PM (#3417553)
Hurley: Jacoby Ellsbury Proves Defensive Statistics Human Opinions Are Essentially Meaningless
   15. Golfing Great Mitch Cumstein Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:18 PM (#3417554)
Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy.

That second sentence is so silly. The writer seems to think that diving catches are good in and of themselves. If Ellsbury were not having to dive for balls because he made bad jumps, he would be making diving catches for balls even farther from his starting position.
   16. Blackadder Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:19 PM (#3417555)
I seem to recall such a hit off the bat of a certain V. Guerrero.


Ah, that game was awesome. I was at there; it was probably the only time I could call the Red Sox closer a papelbitch and not get murdered by the Fenway faithful..
   17. Rally Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:55 PM (#3417581)
Did someone do a study that showed a positive correlation between Stolen Bases and defensive proficiency that I missed?


Actually, yes. Considering speed scores correlate with outfield defense and SB are a big part of speed scores. Ellsbury had good defensive stats in 2008, bad in 2009, and is very fast whether you go by speed scores or a stopwatch to first. Considering all of that, I'd expect him to be an above average defender next year. He just didn't play that great last year for whatever reason.
   18. Tripon Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:57 PM (#3417584)
But for anyone who wants to live and die by the defensive statistics, then what is there to say about Ellsbury’s 2008 statistics? In 2008, Ellsbury’s UZR was a cool 16.5. Yes, on the other side of zero. So if the stats are to be believed, Ellsbury spent the 2008 offseason eating Cheetos and working on deadening his reaction skills. His jump was just too good—nearly dangerous—for his own good, so he must have wanted to get much, much worse. You know, for safety’s sake.


Ellsbury 2008 year:

LF: 58 games, 346.1 innings, 9.3 UZR
CF: 66 games, 546.2 innings, 3.0 UZR
RF: 36 games, 281.0 innings, 4.2 UZR

Total: 16.5 UZR

2009:

CF: 153 games, 1302.2 innings, -18.6 UZR

2009 was only one year's worth of data, but you can argue that 2008 was also SSS since Ellsbury acted more like a 4th outfielder, extensively playing all three outfield positions. Compared to LF/RFs, he did well, and he his positive UZR in CF in 2008 can be explained as avoiding bad luck in his small time in CF. In 2009, he played CF exclusively so he's now being compared to guys like Franklin Gutierrez instead of Jason Bay.
   19. A triple short of the cycle Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:59 PM (#3417587)
   20. dangnewt Posted: December 19, 2009 at 04:59 PM (#3417588)
He plays too deep to reach shallow balls in his zone and he gets bad reads on balls hit directly at him. It really isn't that difficult to understand.


You nailed it. As far as this year goes with Cameron on the team, the Sox are probably willing to give Ellsbury more time to develop the ability to read the ball better and maybe Cameron can help him with that. If Ellsbury really doesn't show any improvement, he moves over to left where he would be a big defensive upgrade. Nothing should fall in front of or get behind him at Fenway.
   21. BFFB Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:19 PM (#3417602)


fixed?

Edit:

Nope.

Second Edit:

Yep!
   22. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:23 PM (#3417608)
</i></i>--stop me before I italicize again!
   23. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:23 PM (#3417609)
fixed?

I give up
   24. Lassus Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:30 PM (#3417616)
   25. Lassus Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:30 PM (#3417617)
No? Nope. Oh well.

Oho! I fixed it. Damn, I'm good.
   26. Tripon Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:32 PM (#3417619)
you fixed nothing.
   27. Lassus Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:35 PM (#3417621)
Wait, what happened? It WAS fixed, momentarily. Now I'm really confused. Are you just being difficult?
   28. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:36 PM (#3417623)
are we there yet?

looks like our long national nightmare is over
   29. Lassus Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:40 PM (#3417631)
I think Tripon was just trying to torture the Mets' fans some more. He hasn't gotten over that 2006 sweep or something.
   30. Darnell McDonald had a farm Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:41 PM (#3417632)
Juan Pierre would love to say "hi" but he's too busy packing his stuff
   31. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:45 PM (#3417636)
Juan Pierre would love to say "hi" but he's too busy packing his stuff


(bad stuff)?
   32. Itch Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:48 PM (#3417643)
He plays too deep to reach shallow balls in his zone and he gets bad reads on balls hit directly at him.


Was this a Curtis Granderson post?
   33. Jose is an Absurd Doubles Machine Posted: December 19, 2009 at 05:57 PM (#3417658)
I was enjoying the italics.

Despite the statistics, Ellsbury was named Defensive Player of the Year on MLB.com. Granted, the honor was voted on by fans, but it proves a point: The kid can play defense.


Um...no it doesn't. It proves he won a popularity contest.

Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy. Terry Francona probably sleeps a little easier knowing he’s got such solid defense in center, and Red Sox pitchers likely don’t mind knowing that no bloop will fall in shallow center and no blasts will hit the dirt in the triangle.


Why on earth is it so difficult to understand that the same flaws that lead to diving catches also lead to balls falling in? I went to about 27-28 games this year at Fenway and I really can't understand how anyone watching him on a regular basis could not see that he does a very poor job of reading the ball off the bat.
   34. calhounite Posted: December 19, 2009 at 06:02 PM (#3417660)
nonmixers
Cameron and that squirrel cage called left field in Fenway

slap-speed hitter and any player Boston's ever stuck in the squirrel cage.

Cameron's going to have to send video to SD.
   35. Ron Johnson Posted: December 19, 2009 at 06:04 PM (#3417663)
Considering speed scores correlate with outfield defense and SB are a big part of speed scores


Wouldn't consider this as evidence. Range factor is a part of speed score.

I'd look for the correlations between stolen bases and defensive metrics. I'm pretty sure that there was a study on this (correlation between stolen bases and DA) but I can't find it. Scott Fischthal's archive of DA studies is long gone.
   36. Don Malcolm Posted: December 19, 2009 at 06:20 PM (#3417670)
Hey, let's just solve the problem by shipping Ellsbury to the Padres as part of the Gonzalez deal, move Cameron to center, and the Sox can bring back Damon (just cold-shouldered by the Evil Empire) for a year or two to play left. That way Ellsbury will 3000 miles away from Boston and nobody will care about him one way or the other any more.
   37. Halofan Posted: December 19, 2009 at 07:18 PM (#3417706)
Despite the statistics, Ellsbury was named Defensive Player of the Year on MLB.com. Granted, the honor was voted on by fans, but it proves a point: The kid can play defense.


Would he have won this honor had he played for the Nationals?
   38. Infinite Yost (Voxter) Posted: December 19, 2009 at 07:32 PM (#3417719)
That way Ellsbury will 3000 miles away from Boston and <strike>nobody will care about him one way or the other any more</strike> he will cease to exist.


FTFY
   39. sunnyday2 Posted: December 19, 2009 at 07:52 PM (#3417729)
Jacob Ellsbury Proves That Michael Hurley Is Essentially Meaningless

Can't believe you guys left that one for me.

But seriously, let's say for the sake of argument that Ellsbury hit .301 in 2008 and .280 in 2009 instead of vice versa. Or let's say he hit .353 in 2007 and .280 in 2008. Oh, he did? What would Hurley infer about all of that? Or if you translated offensive statistics into a +/- type of number. Would he know what that means?
   40. depletion Posted: December 19, 2009 at 08:12 PM (#3417748)
Kurt Goedel proved there can be true statements in math that cannot be proved. So he's better than Jacoby Ellsbury.
   41. Walt Davis Posted: December 19, 2009 at 09:48 PM (#3417791)
I will say that defensive metrics seem to produce lots of extreme numbers in Fenway. Also that Fenway's CF is f'ing huge and I don't know if the zones in BIP data properly account for that (I don't know that they don't either but I recall them doing screwy things with the Green Monster).

But, yeah, for whatever reasons, there have been lots of great base-stealers who weren't good OFs, especially not good CFs. Henderson, Brock, Raines and Coleman are the 4 modern career SB leaders ... and they all spent most of their career in LF. Henderson and Raines may have been put there because of Murphy and Dawson to begin with, but nobody was in a hurry to move them back to CF.

(And looking at base stealers before that, defense didn't seem to be a distinguishing characteristic among OF until, what, the 20s or 30s -- i.e. CFs hit as well as LF/RF for a big chunk of history which suggests rough defensive equivalence. Interestingly we may be heading closer to that idea now with the notion that, when you shift an OF, whatever you might gain/lose in offense you lose/gain in defense.)

It's odd but few GG-winning CF have been good base stealers -- Beltran, the young Cedeno, the young Mays, Pettis, White kinda are the ones I find among repeat winners. Given how oddly GG seem to get decided, you'd think SBs might be a common proxy for defense. Of course you don't have to be a GG-winning (or even GG-deserving) CF to be good defensively.
   42. Infinite Yost (Voxter) Posted: December 19, 2009 at 09:55 PM (#3417794)
I'm always surprised at how few bases Joe DiMaggio stole when I look him up. I mean, it was a low-SB era (for reference, his brother Dom led the league in SB with 15 in 1950), but he was in the low single digits every year.
   43. Mike Emeigh Posted: December 19, 2009 at 09:55 PM (#3417795)
I will say that defensive metrics seem to produce lots of extreme numbers in Fenway. Also that Fenway's CF is f'ing huge and I don't know if the zones in BIP data properly account for that (I don't know that they don't either but I recall them doing screwy things with the Green Monster).


Fenway is such an odd-shaped ball park that the normal assumptions about where OFs are positioned don't apply - and since ZR data is based on the assumption that the OFs will be positioned normally Fenway is going to produce odd results. But the odd results are not necessarily incompatible with the idea that Ellsbury isn't all that good defensively.

-- MWE
   44. tfbg9 Posted: December 19, 2009 at 11:17 PM (#3417829)
I'm certainly no defender of Ellsbury, but do people actually believe this?
I used to hear it a lot about Jim Edmonds. Usually from people who had some other pre-existing reason to dislike him.


Pete Rose used to pull this crap fairly often, if memory serves. At least he was accused of it.
   45. Voros McCracken of Pinkus Posted: December 20, 2009 at 12:02 AM (#3417840)
I believe the effect of CFers outhitting other outfielders in the past is similar to the effect of RFers outhitting LFers in the present (that's still happening, right?)

The idea is that your best athlete among your outfielders played center field and that your best athlete was also more likely to be your best hitter as well. So right fielders outhit left fielders not because it's a less important position, but because the best hitting corner outfielders tend to also be slightly better athletes and therefore more likely to be a better defender as well.
   46. TVerik, who wonders what the hell is "Ansky" Posted: December 20, 2009 at 12:11 AM (#3417845)
Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy.


Let's assume that this is true. Isn't it a very troubling sign going forward? Young Bernie Williams outran his mistakes and won Gold Gloves in the Nineties, and when he lost a step, he was one of the very worst fulltime center fielders that I've ever seen.
   47. Bob Meta-Meusel Posted: December 20, 2009 at 12:38 AM (#3417865)
Henderson and Raines may have been put there because of Murphy and Dawson to begin with, but nobody was in a hurry to move them back to CF.


Well, the Yankees played Rickey in CF almost exclusively in '85 & '86, and BP has him at 12 & 16 RAA there respectively, which matches with my teenage memories. From what I recall (admittedly, I was 13/14 at that point) he just preferred to play left at that point of his career and being put into center was one of the things that he was unhappy about during his time in New York.
   48. tjm1 Posted: December 24, 2009 at 03:37 PM (#3421606)
Roger Cedeno is another guy who was very fast, and was terrible defensively.

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